Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sexism makes me hate Betty Draper

"Mad Men" is back! Okay, I know the show's season officially started three weeks ago, but the first episodes of each season often seem painfully slow. I stick around because I know the writers are merely setting the scene for deft and nuanced exploration of character and society. In this third episode, "Arrangements," things started happening--at least in the way things gently happen on "Mad Men," where a small, seemingly unimportant event can be weighted with significance. Peggy continued to push personal (and familial) boundaries, deciding to leave the outer boroughs for an apartment in Manhattan. Kitty, who worked so hard to marry Sal, is suddenly realizing why it is that she doesn't get "tended to" by her husband. An old, rich friend of Bert Cooper's lamented the character of his failure of a son. "We just didn't know what kind of person we were raising." Pete greasily tried to soak said son, an old school chum, for $3 million worth of advertising to make jai alai "bigger than baseball." Betty...well, Betty lost her father Gene and cemented her place as the one "Mad Men" character that I absolutely, unequivocably loathe. Yes, I hate Betty Draper. And I am far from alone. But why does this particular character--this female character--provoke so much derision, while viewers see the humanity in even the most snake-like male characters (Pete, I am so looking at you.)?

The character of Betty Draper is the embodiment of pre-Feminine Mystique, upper-middle class, white womanhood. (Or at least how we have come to imagine it.) Betty was raised to be taken care of. She was raised to be a perfect trophy. She is a well-heeled Grace Kelly doppelganger-- a former model, a princess, a daddy's little girl. And she is finding, as many women do, that living on a pedestal is less than fulfilling. She is allowed no emotion--not even the right to grieve for her own mother (season one). She is bored and depressed. Her alpha male husband is distant, uncommunicative and philandering to boot. She has two children that seem little more than burdens and one on the way that she doesn't really want. She is treated like a child with little agency. When Betty sees a male psychiatrist in season one, she learns that he is reporting on her sessions to her husband. She is depressed.

The character of Betty Draper, who was fresh and hopeful in season one, is now nervous with periodically shaking hands. She is withdrawn, bitter and cold. She is alternately dismissive and cruel to her children (particularly her daughter), her friends and other family members. She is unhappy and the world knows it. Personal misery can make for an unpleasant personality.

I understand why Betty is the way she is. She was molded by her family and a society that viewed women like her as dolls not living, breathing women with needs and desires. In Sunday's episode, Betty's father Gene hints several times that he, too, didn't know what kind of person he was raising. He mentions that Betty is nothing like her independent mother, his wife, who was working when he first met her. He frets that he shielded Betty from too many things, raised her to be a princess--"Scarlett O'Hara" he calls her. After he tries to discuss his final wishes with his daughter, she huffs: (paraphrasing) I know it must be hard for you to face whatever it is your facing, but can't you keep it to yourself? It's selfish and morbid for you to talk to me about it. I'm your little girl! Later, Gene tells his grandaughter, Betty's child, that she can be whatever she wants to be..."no matter what your mother says." It is likely a message he never gave his "little girl" Betty. Nor does it seem he encouraged his wife's independent streak, as there is no mention of her working after they married.

So, I think I know what makes Betty--Betty. Yet, I find it hard to be compassionate towards her, even as I forgive her husband his dalliances, oh, and for stealing a dead man's identity. I should be more understanding of a woman--a sister who shares some of my challenges (or would have if I had been around in the early 60s...and of course, if I were a fictional Tami). But, perhaps that is the thing. I don't see Betty as a sister. She is the antithesis of black womanhood. She is the paragon of femininity that women like me have been told we should want to be, but never will be. As twisted as the late 50s/early 60s view of womanhood was, then, as now, there is privilege in embodying the ideal. Blonde and blue-eyed, conventionally beautiful and sheltered Betty is most certainly the ideal. And with her position comes privilege. That is what I see when I view Betty through the context of black women of her era--privilege.

I hate Betty Draper so, so much more whenever Carla, the family's black maid, appears on the screen. I cringe every time a po-faced Betty dons her riding attire and tosses some instruction about cooking and cleaning and child-rearing over her shoulder to Carla, a woman who is surely someone's "little girl," but who must do the things women like Betty are deemed too delicate to tackle. I bristled in season two when she tearily snapped at the black housekeeper who raised her in her father's house, berating the woman for not spending enough time managing Gene's dementia and keeping an eye on his new wife. Fix it black woman! I certainly cannot be expected to handle this!

Betty is enslaved, while also being the slave master. This is what I hate about her. She wants freedom and agency when it is convenient. She wants to come down off the pedestal, but she seems unwilling, at least at this point in the narrative, to give up the privilege that comes with being idealized.

I think I understand my feelings about Betty Draper. And I think they are valid. But why is she, in particular, so unforgiveable...and not just for me?

A commenter named Lgreer28 on Television Without Pity asked just this question to the Betty haters:

I find it amazing that people are always pointing out Betty's immaturity, while ignoring the immaturity of the other characters. Why do they expect her to be the perfect parent? Why is it that her flaws are not tolerated, yet the flaws of the other characters are? Why do they constantly complain about Betty's flaws and ignore Don's? Why do they ignore the fact that Don is no more a perfect parent than Betty? Why do they ignore his own immaturity or his tendencies to indulge in his own illusions?

Indeed. Betty is a bad mother, but "Mad Men" is riddled with bad fathers. Betty is selfish, but not nearly as selfish as her errant husband. As for my beef, Betty hardly created the hierarchy of race and femininity that strangles her and all of the other women on the show--black ones, included. There is scarcely a man on the show who hasn't committed Betty's "crimes" and much more and who isn't 10 times more responsible for perpetuating the inequities of the time. Yet, she is the person that gets all of our hate, which maybe proves that when it comes to sexism, we aren't so much more enlightened than folks were in Betty's day. We tut and gasp over the biased treatment of women on "Mad Men." "My God, I'm so glad things are different today!" But as we analyze the show and its characters with our 21st century eyes, a woman is still judged more harshly than a man for similar infractions. We've laid aside the mid-day gin at the office, the skinny ties and girdles. But it seems that, in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


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